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jac7890

film review: "End of Suburbia"

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Have any of you seen the new film:

"THE END OF SUBURBIA: oil depletion and the collapse of the American Dream"???

It is a newly-released full-length documentary about the future of our cities.

The hosts are none other than urban design big-wigs Peter Calthorpe and James Howard Kunstler, among others.

Its a very important film, and if you haven't seen it yet, its well worth it.

check out the website: www.endofsuburbia.com (i just ordered a dvd copy, awaiting its arrival).

If you have seen it, let's hear some comments.

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Without seeing the film I can say that I don't think oil depletion will call the collapse of the American Dream. i.e. owning a detatched house with a yard. The reason I say this is there are too many alternatives to oil that can be used to propel vehicles that are not in place today because they can't compete with the oil industry yet.

E85 (85% ethanol & 15% gasoline) is already available now in thousands of stations (mostly in the mid west) and is slowing expanding across the country. Many cars can burn it and it would not be too much of a stretch to modify vehicles to E100. BioDiesel is another option.

I don't have any doubt that in the short term disruptions occur, but in the 1970s there were days when you simply could not buy gasoline and during this period people continued to move away from cities. They dealt with it by buying more fuel efficient cars and E10 (known as gasahol) showed up most gas stations. We only returned to gas guzzling SUVs, and high powered cars because the economies and government policies of the 80s, 90s and now allow for it.

Thanks for posting the article. I'd be interested in hearing your review of the film.

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even though it seems that we're returning to the cities in droves these days, I'll have to agree with Metro. I don't think we'll ever see the end of suburbs in our lifetime. The goods news will be that the city will be there for people who want that. That was not an option in the last 50 years. I think traffic congestion will push people in more than expensive gas will. Even then, people will press for better mass transit to the suburbs. The cities that can handle that will be much better off than those than don't, Houston v. Miami for instance, or LA v San Fran.

I'll be on the lookout for the movie. Sound interesting.

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I have seen this film and it is a very thought-provoking feature. It articulates the conditions necessary for suburbia's creation, why it flourished, and why it is a broken concept doomed to failure. In summary the key reason for suburbia's development is cheap energy (cheap oil in particular), a historically unusual situation that will likely end in the coming years. Some believe cheap energy will be a memory by 2008, others think 2030 or later. The reality can be found in an honest assessment of the world's oil deposits, which for political reasons is impossible to obtain.

Oil depletion is a deep subject but my personal opinion is that its effects will completely destroy the idea of suburbia and probably economic growth in general. Economic growth today is predicated on an expanding energy base and a monetary system that pays interest on the borrowing of capital. A declining energy supply means less economic output (read: depression conditions) and the inability to service debt. That combination invites total collapse.

Ethanol and biodiesel only offer limited hope. If memory serves me right, the US currently consumes over 100 billion gallons of gasoline per year. Is it really realistic to think that we can grow enough corn (or any other crop) to produce that amount of fuel? Assuming a corn yield of 120 bushels per acre and that each bushel produces 2.6 gallons of ethanol, we would need about 2/3 of the arable land in the US devoted to producing fuel. Land that is today supplying food. Also remember it takes additional fuel to grow the crops, supply pesticides, etc. What happens if there is a bad harvest?

If not ethanol/biodiesel, then what? Hydrogen is a pipe dream, since nobody has answered where the hydrogen is supposed to come from. I have read that just to replace our current oil consumption, roughly 1000 nuclear power plants would need to be constructed to generate sufficient electricity for generating hydrogen by electrolysis. That is a multi-trillion dollar initiative with its own resource constraints.

The 1970s oil shocks became a memory because the west had the fortune of having untapped deposits come online in Alaska and the North Sea, among other places. Today there is no such cushion of untapped supply. Today's political football, ANWR, is puny in comparison.

Oil depletion is truly a vexing problem and ties intricately with the layout of our cities, which in the US Sunbelt are basically giant temples of automobile worship. I believe oil depletion will destroy the notion of routine automobile transport and it will take many of America's cities with it. This movie basically articulates that point, and mentions New Urbanism as a possible solution. However that is like suggesting a fire blanket might stop a forest fire.

It is definitely worth a watching, but be prepared to confront the reality of the unsustainability of American city living.

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Ethanol and biodiesel only offer limited hope.  If memory serves me right, the US currently consumes over 100 billion gallons of gasoline per year.  Is it really realistic to think that we can grow enough corn (or any other crop) to produce that amount of fuel?  Assuming a corn yield of 120 bushels per acre and that each bushel produces 2.6 gallons of ethanol, we would need about 2/3 of the arable land in the US devoted to producing fuel.  Land that is today supplying food.  Also remember it takes additional fuel to grow the crops, supply pesticides, etc.  What happens if there is a bad harvest? 

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

This assumes there are no improvements in the current technology. In addition, the byproducts of these process are materials that can consumed as food and used for other productive purposes.

The Iowa Corn growers association claims they grow 300 bushels corn/acre.

Human and animal waste can be converted to either methanol another process that can be used to fuel cars.

Other food waste (of which there is a lot in the US) can be converted into ethanol.

We are driving gas guzzlers again. Cars can be purchased even today that exceed 45 mpg.

Most farm acreage can produce several yields of crops over the course of a year.

All in all if the same investment that has been made in the oil industry is put into renewable fuels, the dire consequences predicted can be delayed for quite some timed. (if not avoided all together)

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interesting

sounds like it's worth checking out

btw, I don't predict "doom & gloom", even tho I haven't seen this movie. There's still many untapped sources of oil, particularly in the depths of the sea (apparently only about 2% of the ocean floor is explored).

In the time it takes for oil to diminish completely, we will have already moved on to an alternative form of energy. Yes, I do suspect that energy costs will rise and people will be forced to be more energy efficient... but I still don't see a complete economic meltdown that zed has said.

The world isn't as ignorant as some may think it to be, and I know it is already preparing for an eventual transition to new energy. I mean hell, what if cold fusion could become a reality? There's so much untapped knowledge out there. To think world industry will all of a sudden allow itself to crumble is ludicrous. Reminds me of those people that thought Y2k would be the end fo the modern world. :P

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The key aspect to think about is: where will the energy come from? Fossil fuels represent stored solar energy that accrued within the planet over hundreds of millions of years. In roughly 100 years, we've consumed about half of that and the pace of consumption continues to increase.

Remember that everything in our world is dependent on energy. That energy must come from somewhere - either the sun (wind, hydro, solar), the earth (geothermal and fossil fuels), or nuclear forces. Industrial civilization was built on exploiting the "easy energy" found as fossil fuels. Other sources have so far proven to be much more difficult to harness in the large quantities required to build 8-lane freeways, strip malls, airplanes, etc. Also remember that industrial civilization is built on the economic system of capitalism, which requires constant growth to allow existing debts to be serviced and new debt to be issued. What happens if the fundamental resource of civilization becomes more scarce and prohibits further growth? Is it really realistic to expect alternatives like biofuels to allow endless growth that capitalism requires to sustain itself?

Recalling from thermodynamics, energy takes energy to produce and also increases the entropy of the total system during the conversion. We are living off of the stored energy of hundreds of millions of years. In the future, we will have to exert energy to generate any alternative energies, and this will come at a cost of entropy (pollution, waste, etc). Fossil fuels are basically "free" energy because all of it was ready to use by the time humans took over the planet. No alternative can make that claim, and therefore part of the energy problem can be realized from a physics standpoint: the free lunch is coming to an end. Any energy alternatives will not be free.

It is tempting to be optimistic about biofuels, but remember modern agriculture requires extensive inputs of oil and natural gas to realize today's high yields per acre. These high yields also come at a cost of soil and aquifer depletion, meaning they are not sustainable in more ways than one. In terms of energy consumed per calorie of food output, industrial agriculture is less efficient than traditional methods and actually represents the least energy efficient of food production in the history of mankind!

Cold fusion and zero-point energy are fun to think about, but there is no evidence these technologies can produce commercial quantities of energy. Our closest alternative, 'hot fusion', is still considered to be at least 20 years away. That may not be enough time.

Hisma, you mention that the world is preparing for a transition to alternative energy. What is your evidence for this? The world's fastest growing economy, China, is rapidly increasing consumption of coal and oil. The world's largest and most oil-thirsty economy, the USA, is occupying territory containing some of the largest oil reserves on the planet. If there is so much oil to be found, why are oil companies, awash in profits, doing little to increase drilling and exploration? "Alternatives" are reduced to feel-good press releases and niche deployments, which is the limit of their potential in my opinion.

The only alternative energy that is proven viable and underutilized is nuclear fission. Some even claim it takes more energy to build and maintain a nuclear plant than it ever produces. That is a sobering thought if true, and also remember that nuclear source fuels (uranium, possibly thorium) require additional energy to be mined and enriched for use in a reactor.

It's tempting to look at a problem as serious as oil depletion and think "somebody will think of something" or "people are really smart" or "look at all the great problems that were solved in the 20th century". However, many societies in the history of the world have used mass delusion to avoid adapting to encroaching resource constraints and have experienced collapse. Jared Diamond just wrote a book on this, as a matter of fact. Also, remember that the 20th century is a lesson in what is possible when a society becomes empowered with cheap energy - it tells us nothing about what is possible in the absence of it.

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Concerning Nuclear Fission.

One only has to look at Japan to see how this can work. They have the second largest economy in the world, and on a per capita basis, the largest consumer society. Yet they have almost no natural sources of energy. They manage this by building large farms of nuclear reactors that essentially power the entire country. Lights, transportation, heat, etc. are almost from nuclear power. They certainly import oil, but it is priced such that gasoline approaches $6/gallon or more. Ironically Japan builds 1/4 of all of the automobiles on the planet.

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Wind power is underutilized in this country. Geothermal power is popular in Iceland. Tidal power could be used in some places. Solar reflection farms will become more effecient. OTEC will find it's place in my opinion. As energy prices rise many of these free energy sources will become more and more viable. As more and more of them come online, they wil become easier and cheaper to use. We will adjust.

I personally can't wait till we all have our own little fuel cell in the house providing powered off of hydrogen from algae. Oh ya!

http://www.plantphysiol.org/cgi/content/abstract/122/1/127

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Fission will be the only available stopgag measure to provide us enough energy in the coming 20-30 years.

With some of the new Chinese pebble-bed reactors that are easeir to cool and cannot melt down, the prices are likely to drop significantly and result in more use. In 2001, the Bush administration reauthorized the reprocessing of nuclear waste, as France, Russia, and the UK do now. (Japan is building a facility). In the interem period, a contract has been signed with the Le Havre reprocessing center in France to reprocess some American nuclear waste...

As for fusion, I'm sure it's time will come. Fission will just keep us alive until we get there...

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